Interviewsand Articles


An American Artist In Japan: Katina Huston

by Katina Huston,



I came to Japan by accident and opportunity and the generosity of Kikuko Sakota, a former student in an art class I taught in San Francisco four summers ago. Three years later she called. Kikuko was returning to Japan. Could I come? —If I were to have a show I could.

7/8 Tokyo
I arrive in Tokyo at 8 pm Sunday night and Reiko Nakamura, another former student of mine meets me at the airport. The trip to my guest house is two hours by train and then three subways. I find myself uncomfortable with her generosity. I don’t know her very well and she is looking after me. I was the teacher and now she knows everything.

I am the only non-Japanese person on any of the trains, in any of the stations, and cannot read the signs or the map or the buttons on the machine that dispenses subway tickets. I bought the wrong one, one that lets you in the station but goes nowhere.

Reiko and I talk about art. At home she paints small canvases in the family room. In September she goes to art school in Spain. She says she will go there and become famous to make a living as an artist here in Japan. She brings me to my guest house and looks it over for me. She likes the bath. “Very modern.” She has taken the week off from her new job to be with me. “When shall I meet you tomorrow?” We will meet in the afternoon.

7/9 Tokyo
Roaming downtown Tokyo, it is hot. I grow anxious. Ladies walk by using white umbrellas as parasols. Step outdoors and you are drenched in sweat, clothes clinging. I am writing in a Starbucks that could be in Encino. I feel competent saying, “Grande Latte isu.”

Outside, women passing the window are dressed like children. On older girls it is bizarre seeing round women’s legs below the little-girl blue skirt and breasts pressing out of the sailor shirt, Japanese cartoon-girl heroes.

I find a Kinko’s and feel heroic, but it takes two hours to send an email. A button pressed by accident clicks the screen into Japanese. I signal a passing clerk for help. He hisses. Do not interrupt.

A department store near Shinjuku Station has a food court beyond my wildest dreams. A full city block piled with food. 8000-yen melons. Aisles and aisles filled with samples of everything.

I meet Reiko and her friend Nahoko Hirano for lunch. Nahoko was an art history student in the U.S. and has recently gotten a job as an arts producer for Asahi. She knows a lot about art in the U.S. and art in general. I ask her what she thinks of art in Japan. “There is no comprehensive coverage of art in Japan, no guide to galleries or a magazine that will give you a sense of what is going on.”

“What do you think is going on?” I ask.

“Ten years ago an artist who could offer a loose sketch of Paris could be viable. Now there is no clear criterion, no critical dialogue. Only students in the art universities can take art. No one else does.”

According to Nahoko the art scene is difficult to find, literally. There is no overall map or even area maps showing one or two galleries. Addresses are numbered according to the date the building went up. A building’s address lists the nearest intersection, so you wander up and down the block until you find the number. All of this in Japanese characters.

7/10 Galleries
I meet Reiko in the Ginza District (department stores, Chanel, Coach, Benneton). She is standing in front of Sanai looking worried. When she sees me she smiles, always surprised that I have found her. We begin our search for galleries. There are many blind alleys. We find Ota Fine Arts finally on a nice residential street. The black entrance door is open and a man’s undershirt is drying on a hanger on the doorknob. Starting up the stairs the owner of the undershirt stops us, giving us the mail to bring up to the gallery.

The gallery is the size of my bedroom and filled with Yayoi Kasuma pieces from the past twenty years. Dot paintings, glove chairs. Maybe I have seen some of these same pieces at L. A. County Museum of Art, but it is hard to imagine. The gallery woman thanks me for the mail.

We find Fuji Gallery closed for installation, but the gallery woman lets us in and brings us a cup of cold tea. We ask about art and I attend to a blister on my foot. She shows us catalogues from past exhibits. There are sketches of Paris street scenes, just as Nahoko told us yesterday.

The art bookstore, Nadiff, has selected books laid out on tables; The Venice Biennial, Anthony Gormley, David Nash, Yayoi Kasuma. From this I can see what Japanese artists are doing internationally and, as it turns out, look at artists who are showing in Tokyo.

The little gallery in the bookstore shows airplane-model-shaped sculptures made of plastic epoxy. They are fun, toy-like, but the material seems strangely poisonous.

Rontengen Kunstrum (“x-ray art room” a German phrase) is a closet of a gallery showing five or six artists. There is little room for art so catalogues are presented. One artist’s entire oeuvre is piled on the surface of a 10” x 10” pedestal.

At The Sculpture Center at Ebisu Gardens, Anthony Gormley’s work is being shown. Gorgeous big sculptures. It must have cost a fortune to ship them from England. One is a pair of larger than life-sized men in bronze facing each other through a window, one outside, one inside. They could not be shown this way in the U.S. I follow the exhibition up the stairs and find myself standing in an office for a computer business.

7/11 Uueno Park, Tokyo
Homeless people live in the park. It is much more dignified than in the U.S. The homeless man in his shorts washes in a fountain. The tent city is very tidy.

I have new shoes. New blisters. I feel like crying over my feet. The women are walking around in pumps and squash heels. Ultra-feminine things in colors from the ’50’s, ivory, taupe, beige. Younger women wear spiked heels with lots of little straps.

I am looking forward to moving to Kobe tomorrow, but today Reiko and I visit the Art University. There is a museum showing the first-prize MFA paintings going back decades. I take notes as we go. The woman sitting in the gallery tells me it is forbidden to use pens in the museum. I’m given a pee-wee golf pencil to write with. She tells me to return the pencil in the box provided at the exit. (I don’t.)

The paintings are huge. I ask Reiko what she thinks. “Artists are different but look the same. Pleasant. Harmless. Similar. Artists are trained to fill big commercial galleries.”

The most beautiful thing is the tile in the bathroom. Twelve-inch squares of clay each with a finger dent pressed into the clay when it was soft. The glaze catches in a well leaving a rich moment of celadon.

We move on to the students’ studios.
The lecture studio is something out of the 19th Century with life-size plasters of classical sculptures; Zeus, Marcus Auraelius, his horse. We wander the building from the top (doctoral candidates) down (freshmen) poking our heads into each studio. Everyone thinks the best work is on the third floor and they are right. First and second year students have range and originality. Styles and themes appear and reappear, child imagery soft like Milton Avery or hard like pink vinyl. Colors are pretty or dark. Many canvases are painted in a single color and tone. Few works have a subject. A picture of S&M wrestling shows no hint of sexuality. The tidiest palette I have ever seen makes the tidiest picture I have ever seen. We intrude at every door. I ask Reiko if she would come to look without me. “Never.”

Tokyo National Museum is historical and empty.

7/12 Kobe
My show is in Kobe tonight. Kikuko’s teacher, Toshiko Tochihara, has arranged for me to talk with young Japanese artists. It seems much hope is placed on American interest and in this case I am the interested American. I am afraid there will be expectations about my writing.

Kikuko meets me at the station. She and Tochihara have an agenda for me. First meet an art dealer. Then talk with an artist. Then hang the show.

Shimpei Kawai Is the first artist I meet. We sit at a table in the upstairs gallery. Kikuko and Tochihara sit in. Kikuko will translate. Tochihara explains art things to Kikuko who explains to me.

Mr. Kawai shows me his portfolio of pictures and explains. “I took 5000 butter rolls, painted and sprayed with resin. Later, when I cleaned out my warehouse I found a nest of roaches. The work was lost. The image of cockroaches was so strong that I quit working this way.” Now Kawai uses oil paints floating in resin. The pictures show flowing objects suspended between panes of glass. They are impressive, the forms sloppy, crawling or spilling over the edges of their implied Petrie dishes.

His friend and exhibition producer, Ken Tanemoto has created a genealogical chart of Mr. Kawai’s work. The chart mimics biologic evolution showing a characteristic developing through a series of forms. The chart also diagrams the flow of artistic ideas from one artwork to the next and then breaking off into new forms and lines of thought, which then develop and reshape through several generations. Each work is titled with a species-like name thought up by Mr. Tanemoto.

I ask Mr. Kawai is Mr. Tanemoto is a collaborator? “No. He is like an insect researcher. He understands the work, so he studies it.” Mr. Kawai goes to the U.S. the next day. I like the way he says it. “I am going to the Smithsonian to look at bugs.”

This is my first real experience with a translator. It is like a foreign film. They talk for a long time and then a single sentence of explanation is offered. I am hearing the conclusion but missing out on the thinking.

Kikuko takes me to the newspaper, simple as that. We check in at the desk downstairs and they let us up to tell the art critic about our show. An assistant comes out first with tea, then with a pad. For an hour we tell her all about me. Kikuko and I leave elated. I ask Kikuko if she would do this if she were having an exhibition alone. “Oh no!” she says.

Tochihara picks us up at the gallery for a trip to the country to meet a ceramic artist. Okawa Tomohiro looks like a Buddha with a shaved head in an artist suit: brightly colored shirt, hush puppies and drug store glasses. The art is a full-scale guillotine with the blade hanging over a bed. On the bed is a glass of water and a loaf of bread with a book propped open on the bed. I ask Mr. Ogawa, “What does this mean?”

“Issue is the meaning of life. It is what it means to be alive.” He shows me pictures of his other work in his portfolio. They look like paintings of people who look like buildings, a little like Debuffet. He says “to evoke binary language, DNA, also male-female. Infinite possibility. Memory is programmed. It is what tells instinct.”

We move on to our drive through the country and arrive at Tochihara’s studio. She is preparing for a show. The paintings are large and boldly painted in raw marks that combine abstract expressionist exuberance with moments of childish scrawl. “Now I want to change out of pigeon hole,” she says.

She had done very well with some paintings that she made after the earthquake in Kobe. She had become known for that work, but now wants to move on. “Now I am painting what the heart sees. The viewer can see any way they like. Main subject is essential self. Dual elements. The one shown to the public, the other essential. Both characters are real. Here the painting looks at us. These new pieces are the eyes in the heart.”

Even writing this down now I can imagine Tochihara saying this to a group of Japanese. They nod and say ëahí. I am capturing only a tiny corner of what she means.

We visit a 7th generation ceramic artist in Tanba, Katsuki Ichino. He makes traditional ware with his family and does contemporary work in an attached studio that he built himself. In his studio he presents pictures of his work in a pocket album that comes free with film processing.

His sculptures are clean, big forms like slices of a globe. His technique is impeccable. The work is similar to what you might see in graduate work in the U.S. but more beautifully crafted. His mother brings us tea and dessert. My tea bowl is magnificent. I want to take it home with me.

Ichino tells us about his work. There is a local alliance of ceramic artists that holds competitions. He and his friends submit suggestions for subjects which are regularly rejected. “What will you do?”

He will wait twenty or thirty years until he is in a position to make these choices in the association.

“Why not hold your own competition?”

“No. It is not how it is done.”

Kikuko is sitting with her father at the gallery. He is about 85, a businessman in his suit. He will sit with us all day. Already he is bored. Saturday is quiet for galleries.

The gallery is filled with our work. My drawings are on one wall, Kikuko’s paintings on the other. When Kikuko was my student she made fascinating creatures out of unexpected materials. Now she paints small acrylic canvases in abstract constellations of bright unmixed color.

We meet with another artist. Gaku Yamada wears the costume of the art stud—same as in America, black jeans, motorcycle boots, earrings. He makes panels suspending pigment in oil over gold leaf. He used to be a photographer and then “about three years ago these colors came to me.”

Q: What does the work mean?

Yamada: I relate color and form with music. When I listen to music, this color and form comes to me. With music or reading literature I go to the same place in my body. It is not abstract painting. It is figurative in this regard, I feel.

Q: How is being an artist for you?

Yamada: Good.

Q: You make a living?

Yamada: I dig. I assist an archaeologist in Kyoto. Kyoto City is itself a living relic.

Q: And the art?

Yamada: I am having technical issues. The oil gets murky but I want to make a living by selling my painting and be satisfied with my work.

Q: Does this opportunity exist?

Yamada: I don’t know.

On Sunday I asked Toshiko Tochihara what her criteria was for choosing the artists I would interview.

Tochihara: I believe they will produce the new art. Good ideas, flair for invention.

Q: You have not introduced me to any artists who are women.

Tochihara: I noticed that. I think it is coincidental. I think many Japanese female artists lack in bold idea. Male artists handle heavy energy. Men have physical energy and bring energy to art. (Three women at the table nod) Also I wanted artists from different disciplines. I was considering one woman but Mr. Ogawa was better than her. The female artist has less risk, stamina. I don’t think a woman would have the stamina to work in steel like Mr. Ogawa.

Q: I worked in cast iron for some time.

Tochihara: There is one iron artist who is quite influential. When he has a show many will come. (She smiles)

Q: Women artists have gained recognition in the US and Europe; Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Rachel Whiteread.

Tochihara: I could arrange an introduction to the man who casts iron, if you like.

A psychology student came and was genuinely moved by my work.  When this happens I remember why I do this. “Very good art.” She says looking at my book. (I have a book like all the artists in Japan. It is filled with my resume, articles written about me and images of past works.)

Especially “Yes”/“No.” (Evolution of Trust and Distrust, works + conversations #4, 2001)

KH: It is about conflict.

Student: In the heart?

KH: No, between the heart and the mind.

Student: For me it is between me and my family. I say, “Yes.” They say, “No.”

Kikuko’s friend Chungshil, who is Korean, explains art in Japan to me. “The concepts are big, Cosmos, Nature, Life. Everything is in a box. First impressions are everything because you are placed in a category. Once placed, a thing moves only with great difficulty.  Western Art/Asian Art. Two separate boxes.”

Earthquake Man
The old man came back three times. “This is the best work I have ever seen.” He leaves and returns with a wrinkled shopping bag. He pulls out a pocket album to show me photographs of clouds, ice, globe icicles hanging from pine branches. Even in “One Hour Photo” prints they are fantastic.

“Beautiful!” I tell him.

“Reading these cloud I can predict earthquake. Before the Kobe earthquake, I knew.”

“Wow!” I return his photos. He is disappointed. He thinks I can tell the world.

A friend of Kikuko’s comes and spends an hour. She looks at the art. “How did you draw this? What is this made of?” Kikuko’s friend reads my whole portfolio, every line of my resume. This is how people look at art here. They stand in front of the work looking for whole minutes. Then they ask questions, then move to the next piece. Everyone stays for half an hour. Many bring gifts—assorted pastries, jellies, custards. When people arrive we greet them, bow, and bring a cup of tea. They sit and drink the tea, have a sweet and chat.

When Kikuko is here she translates for me. I ask questions and take notes. Maybe they think I am writing a novel. I don’t explain myself. I ask Kikuko, “is this rude?”

“No, no. Everything you do is perfect.”

To fully participate in the conversation is a huge effort. Intense. I think if I lean close I will understand Japanese.

The man from the guillotine installation, Okawa Tomohiro, is back, with loquat jelly. It is beautiful in tiny bags with ribbon, gold leaf on top. Kikuko asks him about his installation. Why is the Japanese-English dictionary on the bed? “It implies learning. Even English can gain some understanding.”

“Who does that put in the bed?”

“The viewer. I want the viewer to notice that all of us are living in that bed, the blade over our necks. Many of us have noticed that we are living in that condition. While we are sleeping and, we try to ignore that we could be killed at any time. I want the viewer to recover the idea that this could happen at any time.”

This summer there is much concern about unemployment and a parallel is drawn between actual death and the death of unemployment.

Local artists drop by daily. They show me their work and we talk. Sometimes it is an advanced graduate seminar as we try to work out the terms and issues of art. Sometimes it is an opening reception that will not end. A young man comes in and brings me the image of a small blue abstract painting.

“What is it about?” I ask.

“I was looking at the river and saw constant change, mobility, flow.”

“What do you want to do in your painting?”

“I want to make art that people will enjoy and make beautiful paintings. What do you think of my intention?”

I am learning to choose my words more carefully. “I think a lot of people want to make beautiful paintings. Wanting to please can get in the way of making art.”

“Oh. You must be a very great artist!”

A friend of Kikuko’s is here talking about technique in art. “In the tea ceremony you learn the simplest first and work your way up to the most elaborate. After mastery you go back to the elementary and bring to the simplest what was in the most complex.”

Kikuko talks about her paintings “In my idea abstraction is to depict space, a moment. I depict as I write a poem. The color. The figure. The brush stroke. Like a poem.”

All the artists here were literature majors in college. I ask. “When you are making art are you exploring an idea or illustrating?”

Kikuko: “Exploring.”

River Artist: “Illustrating.”

Tea Ceremony Friend: “Both.”

KH: “Is accident ok?”




“Where does accident come from?”

“Lack of skill.”

Kyoto Interlude
Kyoto is about an hour and a half from Kobe. I drag my bag over cobblestones for a quarter of a mile to get around the temple to my hotel. Comfort Inn, Kyoto, a generic hotel for Japanese business travelers. In a book by the bed are three full pages of rules, single spaced. Rule number 29. “Do not steal the rice hull pillow.”

The day is dangerously hot. I get lost in the scorching sun. It is the first time I am alone in three weeks. Shrines. Temples. Wrong turns.

Minimal/Maximal is the big international touring exhibition at the museum. “The influence of minimal art on international art of the 60’s” the subtitle explains. It presents minimalism as an extremely dry joke. There is a Carl Andre piece with the tiles on the floor just like they were at the Guggenheim. I approach to see if they will let me walk on it, as this is the point. As I draw near the guard shifts to vigilance. I poke a toe over. The guard shakes her head.

“But this is the point!” I say “It is art you can walk on!”


I am prepared to get arrested. I find the catalogue. Page 310, “The fact that the viewer can even walk across the sculpture perfectly integrates the piece to the gallery.” I show this to the English speaking protector of art. “See! You can walk on the art.”


I leave a note for the curator. (He actually wrote back.)

Back in Kobe Tochihara has given me the names of a few galleries so Kikuko and I can present my work, for future opportunities in Japan. Kikuko coaches me on how to dress. We each play a part. I am the American artist, she is the assistant/translator. In our nice clothes we got to Motomachi Gallery. Kikuko makes me look important.

The gallery is small scale with the dust and frayed edge of a scholar’s room. The setting is unusual for modern work but the art is excellent. A large man in his eighties is clearly the owner. Kikuko introduces me saying we have an exhibition up a few blocks away. He agrees to see the work. He means right now. On the walk he talks about art and artists as Kikuko translates. She is amused. He is talking to me as a child. This makes Kikuko a sprout. “If you exchange with mature artists you can also mature.” He suggests with the implication that he can introduce me to his contacts in Europe. I like the idea that my art career has only barely begun and that I have decades yet to go.

At the gallery he looks at our work. He says it is good. I can draw well. Asian people will appreciate this. Next time I have a show in Japan I should call him. He knows many influential people. He writes a list of critics I should call next time.

I thank him. “Is there anything I can do for you in San Francisco?”
No, he no longer travels but “If you meet Japanese artists, talk to them. Help them.”


I closed the exhibition and left Kobe. There was a schedule: 4:30 remove art, pack. 5:45 train. A porter came in a miniature truck and took the art. Kikuko’s father walked me to the train, bought my ticket, pointed me to my train, warmly, and without a word.  


About the Author

Katina Huston is an artist living in the San Francisco East Bay


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